Is your child a picky eater? You should probably panic.


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43 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    A New Parent Group, Somewhere in Suburban America

    Parent One: I brought some Tofurkey Bites for the kids, so make sure Justin gets some.

    Parent Two: Oh, thanks, but for whatever reason Justin doesn’t really like Tofurkey. We found he really likes Gardenburger though, so we’ve been microwaving those and then cutting them up into small pieces for him.

    Parent One: Oh dear…

    Parent Two: What?

    Parent One: I guess you didn’t know. Picky eating is a sign of your child having emotional problems.

    Parent Two: It is? Um… I actually think he just doesn’t like Tofurkey.

    Parent One: You really need to get Justin in to see a specialist. I know someone I could recommend.

    Parent Two: Thanks, but I’ll pass. I don’t think not liking Tofurkey is a sign of a mental disorder, and he’s really a pretty well-adjusted kind.

    Parent One: Why don’t you love your son?Report

    • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Specialist: Here’s my card.I think that with his pickiness, you really need to get him in to see me. This will be a long process, possibly bi-weekly visits, but we’ll get him there. Together.

      What? My rate is $300/hr, but we take all insurance, and we have convenient payment plans to fit your budget.Report

    • notme in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Parent One: (Thinking) I may have to call the Child Protection Services office and report them.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      You have this ALL wrong @tod-kelly .

      After Parent Two says, “What?”, Parent One would proceed to brain them with the microwave that they should have banned from their house before even getting pregnant.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Parent three: this is a bunch of nonsense. You don’t need a therapist. Just force him to eat what you serve him. He’ll get over the pickiness like that.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    We need to bring Benjamin Spock back into vogue to solve today’s parenting problems. We can also get rid of helicoptering parenting by retrofitting the suburbs for pedestrian, cycling, and mass transit rather than cars. This will gives kid’s the ability to get around on their own to parks and places and lower the amount of chauffeur services that parents need to provide; leading to an increased amount of American self-reliance in children.Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Can’t do that until we start training kids on how to bash child molestors’ heads in with bricks…Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

        The threat of child molestation, while real and tragic when it occurs, is not that great and should no more be allowed to create an atmosphere of fear than any other real but rare event. A lot of wicked things came from exaggerating threats.Report

        • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

          On the internet, there are photos of the Free Candy van (yes, it’s white).
          Only in Jersey, no?

          Also, who says that I’m exaggerating? I’m simply speaking of a practical need for children to learn self defense. Weapons are what’s nearby, after all.Report

    • aarondavid in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “retrofitting the suburbs for pedestrian, cycling, and mass transit rather than cars.”

      Great, then they would just agitate for monorail stops at every school, and force bicycle trains on poor kids, making new and improved ways to poorshame. And the walking, what with the hand holding chains blocking intersections for miles in every direction…


    • Notme in reply to LeeEsq says:


      Believe it or not, there are cheaper ways of stopping the helicopter parents. They can just knock it off.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    When I was a kid, I didn’t like seafood. I know, as an adult, that I am allergic to shellfish.

    Now, I know that “shellfish” is a much smaller set than “seafood”, but I do wonder whether I was being “picky” or merely “careful” as a child.

    Then again, you would not believe my social anxiety.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Jaybird says:

      My sister grew up not liking chicken and wouldn’t you know it, she was (and is) allergic to chicken.Report

    • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

      When I was a kid, probably just about five, my mother decided cod-live oil was good for us. She made me take a tablespoon a day. I lasted for about ten days, and I felt sicker and sicker, and then I threw an absolute fit and refused to take it. The whole family quit because of that rage; that rage tasted of cod-liver oil and nausea for everyone once I started throwing up; probably the first real migraine I ever had.

      In my teens, I finally tried lobster — after helping my grandfather pull his traps (he got a shack on the coast and a boat and ten traps after he retired from the paper mill where he worked). I used to be able to eat seafood a couple times a year, but I haven’t eaten any for the last decade, and will have to feel a powerful craving to try it again; something that might happen.

      I do not believe in making children eat anything; I believe firmly in offering them a wide variety of things to try while respecting their refusals.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to zic says:

        I do not believe in making children eat anything; I believe firmly in offering them a wide variety of things to try while respecting their refusals.

        I think children should have a right to opt out of specific foods….but only via selecting a nutritionally similar alternative. I.e., if they really hate broccoli, fine, the green vegetables in this house will be green beans and peas and spinach. If they don’t like fish, okay, chicken or pork it is.

        But a) there has to be an alternative, and b) this objection can’t just randomly show up when the food is served. Don’t like the food, fine, it will taken off the menu in the future, but that’s the meal this time.

        All this applies to kids smart enough to make intelligent decisions, of course. Before a certain age, refusing food is a completely random process that has nothing to do with whether they ‘like’ it or not.Report

  4. trizzlor says:

    Just so we’re on the same page, the punchlines are:

    With regard to psychiatric
    diagnoses, children with severe SE
    were more than twice as likely to
    have a comorbid diagnosis of
    depression (2.01; 95% CI: 1.2–3.8;
    P = .01) or social anxiety (2.70; 95% CI:
    1.3–5.5; P = .009), whereas moderate
    SE was not associated with increased
    likelihood of psychiatric diagnoses.


    SE at baseline at either
    moderate or severe levels predicted
    changes in symptoms of generalized
    anxiety disorder (1.7; 95% CI:
    1.1–2.6; P = .01) or anxiety symptoms
    in general (1.7; 95% CI: 1.2–2.5; P =
    .006) (see Table 3).

    On the statistics: the study does not account for multiple tests performed and there are at least ten tests from what I saw, so all of these p-values should be considered “suggestive” (i.e. bullshit until replicated). On the mechanisms: Severe selective eating (SE) can include “children whose aversions are so intense, they are often unable to eat outside the home”, so the most parsimonious mechanism is that moderate/severe SE is just a proxy for some other kind of anti-social symptom that is probably more effectively measured directly.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to trizzlor says:

      I don’t know how to parse all the stats, but my quasi-professional assessment of the few blurbs I’ve read about this study is that an underlying disorder that can lead to social difficulties can also manifest in weird ways around food.

      To use a common example, Sheldon from “Big Bang” has social issues due to (among other reasons) being hyper controlling of his environment. This extends to his food choices. And, yes, I know there is all sorts of debate and even controversy about what Sheldon’s disorder(s) is/are and how well he actually represents them. But he is a convenient example for the sake of his particular study.

      Now, to what I understand Jaybird’s real point to be… ugh… this study is going to be a nightmare for me next year. At least I’m back in a school where kids bring their own lunch.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Kazzy says:

        That’s my interpretation as well. The most interesting question then is whether selective eating is more predictive of social anxiety than other, more direct behavior. In other words, if little Sheldon is a selective eater but perfectly ordinary in every other way, does that mean big Sheldon will have social anxiety; or is it only if little Sheldon is a selective eater *and* afraid to go outside. If it’s the former, then SE could be a useful tool. If it’s the latter, then the SE observation probably doesn’t add any additional value.

        This study, especially as presented in the media, really wants you to think it’s the former; but to me it’s clearly underpowered to rigorously answer that question.Report

    • Chris in reply to trizzlor says:

      I’m not exactly sure what sorts of corrections would be necessary (there are a few ways you could go), but as they report p-values for each comparison, you could just apply a simple, extremely conservative Bonferroni correction to them yourself. I suspect that even with the most conservative version (every comparison treated as part of the same family) you’ll find that the ones they’ve focused on (e.g., the association with social anxiety) are still statistically significant.Report

      • Trizzlor in reply to Chris says:

        Oh I meant 10 tests in a family, so even the P=0.006 doesn’t survive Bonferroni correction. I don’t have the paper now, but they analyzed almost a dozen anxiety metrics, conditioned two ways, against moderate and severe SE; so 10 was a low-ball. Unless these metrics are highly correlated, I don’t think anything is familywise significant here. Weirdly, there’s no discussion of multiple testing in the paper at all, is that common in this kind of study or is it an implicit admission?Report

        • Chris in reply to Trizzlor says:

          I dunno. I don’t read a lot of clinical research. Correcting for multiple comparisons is pretty standard in cog psy, but not in some other fields I regularly read. You’d think it would be in clinical work, given how statistics are beaten into those folks head, and almost every department has an in-house statistician who is going to be heavily utilized by clinicians. They do some other things that suggest they know what they’re doing, and I assume at least one reviewer pointed this out, because it’s the sort of thing reviewers always point out.

          But they don’t say much at all about their statistics, so it could be the corrections are just assumed and already represented in p-values. Who knows. Clinicians are crazy.Report

          • trizzlor in reply to Chris says:

            Fun fact which you may know. The Science editorial on the LaCour retraction was written by John Bohannon. Bohannon is himself famous for, among other things, a deliberately flawed study identifying a correlation between chocolate and weight-loss that was pushed into the media (eventually making it into Shape) to demonstrate the failures of modern science journalism ( The study was genuinely carried out and the results were accurate, but the deliberate flaw that made the results bogus was not accounting for multiple testing.Report

  5. Damon says:

    Query / thesis:

    Picky eating. Does it lead not to social anxiety and depression but to self righteousness and pretentiousness and a feeling that that the you’re a special flower and all must accommodate you?

    Inquiring minds want to know.Report

  6. zic says:

    Picky eater. God.

    We are so f’d up about food. Seriously.

    First hypersensitive people are a real thing, probably most of the folk participating here are hypersensitive on one way or another. And food is just one part of that. Some if it just smells bad. Some makes you feel bad. If you’ve had experience with food making you feel bad as a child, you’ll probably be averse to experimenting and be happy with a limited diet of comfort foods.

    I had a ‘picky eater,’ prone to depression and all sorts of other things; and picky-eater was a symptom, not a cause; which is first, highly-sensitive and highly-intelligent person. Second, gender dysphoria, which is new treated.

    In her late 20’s, she loves food, loves to cook, and is always willing to experiment.

    As a child, I offered things repeatedly, and never forced eating. Not even tasting. Instead, I enjoyed. I talked about why I liked it. I offered to share, and when my offers were rejected, I acted happy and ate a bit more-for-me. Usually, after the third time I served something new, she’d taste it, but not eat it. By the fifth, she’s really try it, and soon after, it was a favorite.

    But I make good food; it usually — though I freely admit not always — taste a lot better than what’s already-made elsewhere.Report

    • ktward in reply to zic says:

      It sounds like you and I have similarly fashioned girls, though your parenting hurdles were perhaps higher than mine.

      Thing is, tough as it was, my biggest parenting challenge was not my sensitive daughter. It was my sensitive son.Report

  7. ktward says:

    In my experience, most kids are picky eaters– though maybe it’s hard to tell because kids are so wildly different about which foods they’re actually picky about. Sure sure, every parent knows another parent (or knows a parent who knows another parent) who has that perfect kid who eats everything. If you ask me, I bet a lot of those parents of said perfect kids are lying. (For whatever reasons. No judgement.)

    I never forced my kids to eat stuff I already knew they did not like, but I did have a rule that they had to try new stuff, just to see if they might like it. We called it the One Bite Rule. More often than not, they didn’t like it. But my goal wasn’t that they liked the food. My goal was that they learn to not fear trying new food. (One bite is doable, vs. a daunting helping.)

    There are many foods my kids did not like back when they were kids that, as adults, they very much enjoy today.

    For instance, sushi.
    When my kids were in their ‘tweens, I had them try a vegie Cali roll. (They both hated seafood at the time so I wasn’t going to ask them to eat a crab Cali.) They yukked at all of it – the roll, the soy/wasabi, the ginger.

    Fast forward to today.
    My 23yo daughter loves sushi. Even sashimi. And my 26yo son? OMG, he’s a highly skilled and passionate sushi chef. Professionally. (He carves the most amazingly intricate animal/floral designs out of apples. Who knew?)

    Me? When I was a kid growing up in the south in the ’60s, I wasn’t allowed to leave the dinner table until I cleaned my plate of whatever beans or peas my parents heaped on it. I pretty much hated all beans and peas then–lima beans and black-eyed peas being the worst of the worst–and I still pretty much hate them all today, forty-ish years later. I have since learned to not dislike black beans, and to unobtrusively choke down beans in chili so as not to embarrass myself or offend the cook by leaving a bowl with a bunch of kidney beans at the bottom.

    My point, is that I’m convinced if you repeatedly force a kid to eat a food they actively dislike, chances are good they’ll never learn to like that food. If for no other reason than the kid comes to associate that food with a reliably negative experience.

    One more quick anecdote:
    While growing up in southern FL, my backyard had a handful of fruit trees. Orange, tangerine, banana (technically not a tree), and avocado. I never liked avocado as a kid. As a teenager, by which time I was living in Chicago, I loved avocado. (Proof that god has a sick sense of humor?)

    I’ve occasionally wondered … were paleolithic children picky eaters? I mean, maybe some of them hated bat meat. Or whatever. Then again, truly starving people–and their starving children–will eat just about anything. Which makes me think that picky eaters aren’t really a problem. They’re more of a blessing.

    @zic – a lot of the time I could get my daughter to eat something if she thought I made it only for myself. She’d steal a bite or two from my plate, decide she liked it, then confiscate my plate. Honest to god, getting kids to eat healthy is as much about psychology as it is about food prep.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to ktward says:

      I pretty much hated all beans and peas then–lima beans and black-eyed peas being the worst of the worst–and I still pretty much hate them all today, forty-ish years later.

      I have discovered, as I grow older, that all the food I hated but was assured I would like when I grew up…I still *hate*.(1) Even worst than before. Still hate beets. Still hate cranberry sauce. Still think cooked carrots are incredibly nasty.

      Still dislike green beans and peas, but, because I’m an adult, I know I have to eat them, so do…but it’s not the same as *liking* them. (And if they are cooked well enough, I can somewhat enjoy them.)

      My point, is that I’m convinced if you repeatedly force a kid to eat a food they actively dislike, chances are good they’ll never learn to like that food. If for no other reason than the kid comes to associate that food with a reliably negative experience.

      Hell, if you force them to eat something they just don’t particularly care for…

      When I was a kid, my mother ran an at-home daycare in the summer…and there were always snacks…and always a little cup of grape or apple juice.

      *To this day*, I can’t drink apple or grape juice. I didn’t *used* to dislike it, but, apparently, I could only take so much in one lifetime. In fact, I still don’t ‘dislike’ those…I just can’t seem to drink them. (And, I suspect, that is also why I’m not a big wine fan, either.)

      But, anyway, ‘forcing kids to do things they dislike so they won’t like those things as adults’ is basically how we seem to think childhood is supposed to work. That’s the only explanation of why the hell we were forced to read the scripts of Shakespeare plays, or random decades-old books.

      1) In fact, that is almost the story of my life…I sometimes wish I had a time machine, so I could go back to adults assuring young me how my tastes and opinions and everything would change in the future…so I could pop in and say: Uh, no. Future you assures you that this adult is incorrect about what you will think in the future. While future you might not completely agree with past you about everything, in this debate between past you and the adult, future you thinks past you is about 80% right and is taking your side.Report

  8. ktward says:

    I dunno, @jaybird. I think most parents would dismiss this rough bit of science, at least in favor of personal advice from their own trusted pediatricians. Even from parents “in the wild”. (Assuming they listen to NPR.) I’d be interested to hear what the doc thinks the impact might realistically be, but I’m inclined to think it’d be close to nil.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to ktward says:

      Oh, there will be a large group of people who will ignore this entirely.

      There will be two smaller groups of people. Let’s call them X and Y.

      Group X will respond in ways that result in net benefit from having had this info.
      Group Y will respond in ways that result in net harm from having had this info.

      My intuition is that Group Y, even if small, is a lot larger than Group X.

      Though Los Feliz Daycare had this to say:


    • Kazzy in reply to ktward says:


      “I think most parents would dismiss this rough bit of science, at least in favor of personal advice from their own trusted pediatricians.”

      Not many of the parents I work with. Seriously. I can hear an NPR piece like this on the ride in to work and predict with pretty strong accuracy what my inbox or morning drop off conversations are going to be about that day.Report

      • ktward in reply to Kazzy says:

        Okay. But, are the parents you deal with necessarily representative of most parents? I mean, you’ve got a relatively tiny and, well, somewhat uniquely close community going on there. Kind of a bubble, no? Not a bad thing, but is it reflective of a greater whole that’s part of an even greater whole? I’m pretty sure not.

        Nevertheless, maybe you’re right. I’ve no argument that holds water. No data, not even anecdotal. Just a hunch that NPR isn’t nearly as authoritative nor as influential as some of us wish it was. (Albeit for different reasons?)Report

        • Kazzy in reply to ktward says:


          Representative? No. But as the tip of the cultural spear so-to-speak, I think there is the possibility for their reaction to dictate other reactions. You will have the people who look at my parents and think, “OH MY GOD, they all have food counselors! WE NEED FOOD COUNSELORS!” And then you will have the people who look at my parents and think, “They’re fucking crazy. I’m not even going to pay attention to what/how my kid eats.” And then you will have the people who have no idea this is even going on.Report

  9. Kazzy says:

    It is worth nothing that there can be many, MANY causes for young children being “picky eaters”… most of which are perfectly developmentally appropriate. My hunch is that this study identified children whose “pickiness” was well outside of developmental norms and was itself a symptom of some sort of broader underlying issue, which are often harder to peg with young kids.

    A socially anxious two-year-old is hard to spot. A two-year-old who refuses to eat foods with particular textures is not. “Texture eating” can be a symptom of an underlying issue that can cause social difficulties. So you see the seemingly socially typical two-year-old who won’t eat certain textures and then you see the socially anxious adult and think, “If only we got her to eat wet foods when she was 2!” When, in reality, that kid was probably born with some amount of hard wiring that pointed her towards social anxiety but it was impossible to notice until later.Report

  10. Zac says:

    Personal confession time: I am, by all reasonable standards, a picky eater. I was much much worse when I was a kid, but even now it’s hard for me to eat a healthy diet because I’m so averse to most fruits and vegetables (although thankfully I’m also averse to most candy and snack foods, too). Honestly…my whole life, I’ve been jealous of people who I think of as having a “full palate”. I look at my friends and immediate family, and I wish I could just dig into every dish they put in front of themselves…but if I eat that stuff it literally makes me nauseous. One of my greatest wishes is for somebody to invent some kind of pill or surgery or whatever that will “fix” my palate.Report